As you know, if you read this blog at all regularly, for my Lenten discipline this year, I selected fourteen titles from my “New Books” shelf and will devote a separate blog post—two per week across the seven weeks of Lent—to each of them. This post is number ten in the series.
In choosing these fourteen titles, I left twice that many on that same “New Books” shelf (yes, I buy books much faster than I read them), but I have derived such benefit from this exercise that I may continue the practice, at the rate of one book/post per week, even after Lent is over. I’m thinking of calling that weekly post “Library Friday.” I’ll of course let you know if I decide to undertake a schedule like that, and if I do, I’ll publish, in advance, a list of the titles I plan to read and write about over the next few months.
While the selection of these first fourteen was somewhat random, I did try to mix them up a bit. I chose no works of fiction for this list, but several other genres are represented (cultural essays, history, theological studies, narrative nonfiction, etc.) by both religious authors and those writing from a purely secular point of view. Most of the books have met my expectation, and so far I have been pleased to recommend each of them with minimal reservation.
Today’s title is the first that turned out to be different—I guess you could say less—than I had expected (or at least had hoped for). I still recommend it, but with a few more reservations than the others and to a more limited readership.
A quick review of my Amazon orders shows that I bought the book in early February, but I cannot remember what prompted the purchase. The book was published in 2011, so it was not likely a magazine or online ad I was responding to. Most likely, some other writer referenced the book in an essay or blog post, and I was intrigued enough to secure the title for myself. I think I am glad I bought it.
The book is called Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics. The author, Jonathan Dudley, was a medical student at Johns Hopkins University when he wrote the book six years ago. He has now completed his MD and, I believe, has set out on a career in scientific research. Prior to med school, he completed an undergraduate degree at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, where he grew up, and a master’s at Yale Divinity School.
He comes from solid evangelical stock. His parents, who I assume are around my age, and several other relatives attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, a flagship undergraduate training center for young people from fundamentalist and evangelical backgrounds, most of whom are preparing for some type of vocational ministry. He experienced the standard indoctrination to which all young people who grow up in conservative Christianity are subjected, but he was also encouraged to think for himself and was not chastised when his conclusions differed with those of his parents. He dedicates the book to them, while acknowledging that they do not fully embrace the perspective he develops in the book.
Like a growing number of Generation X/Millennials, Jonathan came, as a young adult (or even earlier) to question many of the assumptions on which the evangelical worldview and belief system are based. He found that, when he examined evangelical presuppositions, and the conclusions they led to, through the lens of critical thinking and analytical reasoning, they simply did not pass muster. He no longer self-identifies as an evangelical, although he is still a Christian, but even when he writes most critically of that community, he does so as an estranged family member and not as a hostile or aggrieved opponent.
The short book (barely 150 pages of text plus an extensive compilation of endnotes and documentation) examines what Dudley calls the “big four” issues that have become the marks of political and cultural orthodoxy for many evangelicals: abortion, same-sex attraction, environmentalism and climate change, and evolution. From the outset, he makes clear his purpose for writing the book.
(This book) is my personal look at four hot button issues involving science and scripture that have assumed a central importance in defining the evangelical community… Over the course of my journey through an evangelical college, a mainline seminary, and a medical school, I have concluded that evangelical thought on these topics is in need of serious critique and rethinking.
So have I, but before I came to that conclusion owing to a variety of circumstances that arose in my own pilgrimage, back when I was a proud defender of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics, I would not likely have been persuaded to change my thinking on the basis of the arguments laid out in this book. That is not to suggest that the arguments are flawed (although some are a bit superficial). Rather, it simply acknowledges that evangelicals believe that their convictions—even regarding cultural and political issues—are based on scripture and to question those beliefs is tantamount to denying the authority and credibility of the Bible.
Dudley devotes one chapter to each of the four hot-button issues noted above. The longest and most carefully reasoned chapter deals with abortion, specifically the evangelical claim (shared with most Roman Catholics) that life begins at conception, that even a zygote has an eternal soul, and that abortion at any stage of gestation is therefore murder. Jonathan Dudley opposes abortion, as do I, but he argues cogently and effectively against the foundational evangelical claim for when life really begins. His argument will not persuade most evangelicals to reconsider their position unless they have been wondering about this question already. That is the limited audience to which I alluded above.
I found the chapter on abortion fairly thorough and comprehensive for an introductory exposure to such a complex issue. The other chapters were less satisfying but still, overall, worth reading. (Despite the somewhat lukewarm tone of this brief review, I just noticed, as I fanned back through the pages of the book, that I highlighted or underlined many passages and wrote Yes! over and over in the margins.)
Here is what Jonathan Dudley has to say as he wraps up his argument in the book’s Epilogue.
I used to believe that evangelical Christians were bringing light to a dark culture, representing the author of truth, love, and harmony to a hurting, broken world. Now I believe evangelical Christianity has done more harm than good in the political sphere, that it has rallied behind beliefs that are untrue and supported policies that hurt others. My despair is deepened when I hear from other evangelicals like me, who went off to college, studied hard and tried to embrace a more nuanced version of Christian faith, and found themselves returning home as outsiders, having failed too many of their culture’s litmus tests for true belief. …
(The evangelical Christian) movement has been remarkably successful in building churches and supporting missions work. It has also brought conservative Christians into contact with the broader culture and awakened them to political activism. (But) it has also become politicized and reactionary and failed horribly on both ethical and scientific grounds. On the ethical front, (evangelicals) have failed to confront social injustice in America, ignoring the civil rights movement, opposing the feminist movement, and dragging (their) feet for far too long in the face of environmental destruction. (The movement) has evinced prejudice and disgust toward gays and lesbians and shown no willingness to engage in dialogue with those who disagree on the matter. On the scientific front, the (evangelical) movement has been in the forefront of crusades against evolution, supported untenable and destructive ideas about the nature of homosexuality, and demonstrated unwarranted skepticism about global warming and other environmental matters. It has exuded both ignorance and arrogance in the broader culture. In the process it has made itself despised among the very people it seeks to convert to faith. It has triggered a movement against itself—the new atheists—which argues, in effect, that if this is what Christianity looks like, we will all be better off when it goes extinct.
While those paragraphs may sound a bit harsh or doctrinaire out of their context, let me say again that Jonathan Dudley has written this book not simply to criticize evangelicalism but to attempt to nudge the movement—which nurtured his early faith (and mine!)—back to greater faithfulness and effectiveness as a witness for the gospel.
In his superb work titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, historian Mark Noll, himself an evangelical, quotes the Canadian scholar N.K. Clifford who wrote,
The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an oversimplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection.
Jonathan Dudley’s book, Broken Words, attempts to address that limitation, at least in part. His success will depend on where each reader is in his or her personal pilgrimage at the time they encounter the book. For me, the book was an affirmation of conclusions at which I had already arrived. For many who are convinced, as I was for so many years, of the rightness of evangelical dogma, the book will be unconvincing. But for that limited (but growing) audience of folks who sense there is more to contemporary Christianity than what they have experienced in evangelicalism, especially those who are tired of the connection between evangelical Christianity and conservative American politics, this book could be the very ticket to a new way of thinking and doing and being. To those earnest and honest seekers, then, I recommend this book without reservation.
Note: This is the tenth in a series of fourteen special posts for Lent 2017. Each post references a different book, mostly recent works that I have found helpful and encouraging for my life pilgrimage, especially in light of major changes in my thinking and beliefs in the past decade or so. To read the introduction to the series that I posted on Ash Wednesday, click here. The posts follow the introduction in sequence and will generally be published on Tuesday or Wednesday and on Friday or Saturday each week through the end of Lent on Saturday, April 15.